Back in August, the crew aboard the International Space Station noticed a slight drop in air pressure within the station. The drop wasn’t life threatening, but any change in the status of the their small habitable cocoon of technology hung hundreds of miles above the earth’s surface warrants investigation, so the team set out to find the cause of the drop.
It didn’t take long before they found the culprit, a small hole in the side of a Soyuz habitation module currently docked with the ISS. Initial speculation assume the hole must have been caused by a micro-meteorite strike, but subsequent investigation of the approximately 2mm breach of the spacecraft’s exterior wall seemed to suggest that the hole may have been man-made instead.
“It was done by a human hand. There are traces of a drill sliding along the surface. We don’t reject any theories,” Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, told Russian state media at the time. The subsequent media fervor about the possibility of space-sabotage soon dissipated, thanks in part to the outreach efforts of the astronauts and cosmonauts on board who made a concerted effort via social media to show that there were no tensions among American, European, and Russian inhabitants of the space station — despite rapidly escalating tensions between their parent nations back on earth and even in other orbital endeavors.
This week, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev left the safety of the space station to execute what was to be a six-hour investigation into the hole. The space-walk proved difficult, as the Soyuz capsules are not designed for repair work in orbit and have no railings or hand-holds like can be found throughout the Space Station itself, which was purpose-built to allow orbital service work to be done by spacewalking astronauts.
After around seven hours and 45 minutes, the two men returned from their spacewalk carrying a 10-inch slab of the thermal insulation and debris shield from the hull of the Soyuz. That sample will be sent back to earth, where Russian investigators will pour over it in hopes of unlocking more clues into the cause of the hole in the ship.
The spacewalk was broadcast live, which served as a comical juxtaposition against Moscow’s claims regarding the “unprecedented complexity” of the cosmonaut’s task. Of course, there’s no question that the work was difficult, dangerous, and complex… but at some points, it also looked a bit like a frustrated dad beating on a lawnmower that wouldn’t start.
The Russian’s are performing this spacewalk with surgical precision. pic.twitter.com/RZvqpjpuhQ
— Michael Baylor (@nextspaceflight) December 11, 2018
Sabotage seems unlikely, as the hole wasn’t significant enough to cause any real problems and surfaced after the capsule had already been in orbit for some time. It seems far more likely that the hole was caused by an error in manufacturing and then patched using materials that ultimately wore away, either through the intense heat and friction from launch or as a result of the massive temperature fluctuations that can be found in orbit.
The 10-inch hole was then sealed with a thermal blanket and tape… which is troubling in itself, as that same spacecraft is still expected to serve as the boat home for crew members Sergey Prokopyev, Alexander Gerst, and Serena Auñón-Chancellor.